STEM or Liberal Arts?

Liberal Arts vs Stem Image

High school students who are beginning their college search process often begin with asking what is the difference between graduating from a liberal arts education versus an education in STEM-based subjects? I feel it is imperative that high school students understand the “true value” of a liberal arts education. The real question that students should be asking is, “Which education provides more value to ME?” It is impossible to give the word “value” a single definition. Rather, defining value towards an education requires an individual to assess what is most important when pursuing higher education.

Often, young students have misconceptions about attending a liberal arts institution. They enter college intent on studying either a STEM or business based subject, as opposed to focusing on the educational environment that will help them achieve their goals. There is more to an education than studying, and this leads to emotional maturity and the ability to communicate with people. While going to a school focused on STEM or business may provide short-term benefits, it will often fail to provide students the critical and analytic thinking needed to progress “up the ladder”. Students willing to explore their interests and use college to determine what they want to do after college will find much more value in attending a liberal arts institution as opposed to a school focused in business or STEM studies.

First, students fail to realize that their interests at the beginning of their college experience will often not be the same by the end of their college experience. Personally, I came to Occidental College, a liberal arts institution, believing I wanted to be a kinesiology major so that I could become a sports nutritionist and remain engaged in an area where I am so passionate. However, two months into my college experience, I knew I could never be a kinesiology major because I was not interested in my science and math classes during the first semester. I realized there were many other classes that intrigued me, and interests I never pursued.

I had always been a “wheeler and dealer”, and realized I had a strong entrepreneurial spirit. This influenced my decision to take Finance and Accounting second semester. Additionally, my experience with leading the film and media at J-Term, an entrepreneurial boot-camp, led me to seek a course in Media Arts and Culture. These two areas of study have interested me the most and I am now convinced to design my own major called Creative Producing, which combines aspects of entrepreneurship and Media Arts and Culture. I would have had neither the opportunity nor the flexibility to explore these areas and make these changes at a school with a focus on STEM or business. Most importantly, as my interests change, so can the focus of my academics.

Yuritzy Ramos reports that according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 80 percent of college students will change their major at least once and that on average, college students change their major at least three times before deciding on a major (Ramos 2013). While a student at a vocational specific school, such as UTEP, can change majors, it takes a much longer time to graduate: “Some students start college with a major their parents or relatives picked for them, not realizing that if they end up changing majors too far into their education it will take them longer to graduate” (Ramos 2013). Victor Chavez, a 29 year old graduate of UTEP, had to take a two year hiatus from school, after he told his dad he was changing majors, so that he could finance his own education (Ramos 2013). It took five years longer than anticipated for Victor Chavez to graduate. At a liberal arts institution, students have less worry about their parents deciding their major because so many parents realize that a liberal arts institution’s purpose is to help students explore their interests with the eventual zoning in one area.

Students at a liberal arts institution, such as Oxy, worry less about graduating late because they concurrently complete various core requirements at the school while exploring their interests. Vocational specific institutions have core requirements as well, but they will not have as wide an array of topics. Non-liberal arts institutions will defend themselves by saying that they allow their students to have “exploratory” studies when entering the college as they do not want students to be labeled as undecided at such an institution: “At the University of Florida, where 61 percent of students change their majors by the end of their second year, there are three exploratory tracks — engineering and science, humanities and letters, and social and behavioral — that students can declare for three semesters before choosing a specialized major” (Simon 2012). The reality is that exploration is limited as students are still confined to studying in a mixture of similar fields before specializing. At Oxy, we are allowed to explore everything from the fine arts to the math and sciences before we eventually decide on a major.

Furthermore, many students who attend a vocational specific institution eventually return to school to get a master’s degree in the subject in which they had already obtained a bachelor’s degree. While the undergraduate degree in a STEM field may be a prerequisite to pursue a masters in the same subject, many students are misguided as they believe they will only obtain an entry-level business job by having a degree in that subject. Individuals can attain an entry-level business job without obtaining an undergraduate business degree, and they can return to school to earn a masters degree in order to achieve that higher paying job. Jessica Kleiman even goes to explain that while a degree in a specific field of interest can help land an interview, real-world experience through internships are as valuable to a student’s education experience and will often be the deciding factor between them getting or not getting a job: “But in a way, the internships on a job-seekers’ resumes makes them more desirable candidates than what they studied or what GPA they graduated with. The valuable, real-world work experience that internships provide often arm young job candidates with knowledge, skills and resourcefulness that college classes cannot” (Kleiman 2014). Students become well rounded with a liberal arts education due to the various classes they have to take. This provides a plethora of job opportunities as they will be able to apply multiple skills along with the critical thinking that is developed as the result of a liberal arts education.

Through a survey by Northeastern University, Ebersole explains that “Six in ten of these (surveyed) business leaders responded that “softer” broadly applicable skills such as oral and written communications and problem-solving skills are most important for college graduates to possess. The survey also found that 84 percent of the business leaders believe the ability to think creatively is just as important as the ability to think critically”(Ebersole 2013). Ebersole goes on to further explain that there are many misconceptions about graduates with a liberal arts degree: “Among the top five schools listed by PayScale for liberal arts degrees, the mid-career pay ranges from $64,400 to $79,000. According to current Census data, median income for all households in the U.S. is $51,017. PayScale reported individual median income so, in comparison, the earnings potential for persons with a liberal arts degree is a lot better than most believe” (Ebersole 2013). This proves that liberal arts degrees are not only valuable for the development of a student, but also economically valuable. Ebersole concludes: “And while “harder” skills such as those applicable to many STEM careers are surely critical, even those working in the most highly technical fields need the “well-rounded” advantages to career success that the liberal arts can provide” (Ebersole 2013). This shows that students can be well rounded and still get the job they want. However, Nardos Girma’s article, through interviews of Stanford students, argues that while liberal arts provides a wide array of opportunities, it can also make students feel lost and confused (Girma 2012). Further the article fails to prove that a technical education, at an institution such as Stanford University, is better for helping students find a sense of direction. A liberal arts education provides students multiple opportunities to choose their path of interest.

A liberal arts education may or may not be as useful as a degree from a vocational specific school, depending on what the student values. Students who unequivocally know that they want to be an engineer or work as a financier at a firm, are right to thinking that attending a school focused in STEM or business studies will provide them the biggest “value”. However, the point of an undergraduate degree is to deepen the knowledge and thirst for learning while a master’s degree is for those looking to specialize in a craft or trade. Is not the point of attending graduate school to become a “master” in a certain craft? This is not to say those who want to eventually pursue a career in business should not attend an undergraduate business oriented university, but that they can greatly benefit from attending a liberal arts institution so they can develop critical thinking and analytical skills.

By Joshua Schlisserman

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